A former CIA officer who participated in the capture and questioning of the first al-Qaeda terrorist suspect to be waterboarded said yesterday that the harsh technique provided an intelligence breakthrough that "probably saved lives," but that he now regards the tactic as torture.
Zayn Abidin Muhammed Hussein abu Zubaida, the first high-ranking al-Qaeda member captured after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, broke in less than a minute after he was subjected to the technique and began providing interrogators with information that led to the disruption of several planned attacks, said John Kiriakou, who served as a CIA interrogator in Pakistan.
Abu Zubaida was one of two detainees whose interrogation was captured in video recordings that the CIA later destroyed. The recent disclosure of the tapes' destruction ignited a recent furor on Capitol Hill and allegations that the agency tried to hide evidence of illegal torture.
"It was like flipping a switch," said Kiriakou, the first former CIA employee directly involved in the questioning of "high-value" al-Qaeda detainees to speak publicly.
In an interview, Kiriakou said he did not witness Abu Zubaida's waterboarding but was part of the interrogation team that questioned him in a hospital in Pakistan for weeks after his capture in that country in the spring of 2002.
He described Abu Zubaida as ideologically zealous, defiant and uncooperative — until the day in mid-summer when his captors strapped him to a board, wrapped his nose and mouth in cellophane and forced water into his throat in a technique that simulates drowning.
35 seconds before breakdown
The waterboarding lasted about 35 seconds before Abu Zubaida broke down, according to Kiriakou, who said he was given a detailed description of the incident by fellow team members. The next day, Abu Zubaida told his captors he would tell them whatever they wanted, Kiriakou said.
"He said that Allah had come to him in his cell and told him to cooperate, because it would make things easier for his brothers," Kiriakou said.
Kiriakou's remarks came a day before top CIA officials are to appear before a closed congressional hearing to account for the decision to destroy recordings of the interrogations of Abu Zubaida and another senior captive, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Last Thursday, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden announced that the recordings were destroyed in 2005 to protect the identities of CIA employees who appear on them.
The recordings were destroyed despite orders from judges that required the government to preserve records related to its interrogation programs. The lawsuits were filed by captives at the Guantanamo Bay military prison who were contesting their detentions.
Also yesterday, the House intelligence committee's chairman, Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), and ranking Republican Pete Hoekstra (Mich.) announced that the panel is launching its own investigation into the tapes' destruction. Reyes and Hoekstra said in a statement that Hayden's assertion that the committee had been "properly notified" of the destruction "does not appear to be true."
The Justice Department and the CIA inspector general's office also have begun a preliminary inquiry into the tapes' destruction. Members of the bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks have said they were repeatedly told that the CIA did not have videotapes of interrogations.
Agency officials have said they briefed intelligence committee leaders from both parties over the course of two years on interrogation techniques. Officials said the briefings included mention of the tapes, but none of the lawmakers asked to view them.
U.S. intelligence officials confirmed that Kiriakou was a CIA employee involved in the capture and questioning of Abu Zubaida. Kiriakou, a 14-year veteran of the CIA who worked in both the analysis and operations divisions, left the agency in 2004 and works as a consultant for a private Washington-based firm.
After the hospital interviews bore no fruit, Abu Zubaida was flown to a secret CIA prison, where the interrogation duties fell to a team trained in aggressive tactics, including waterboarding. Shortly before the transfer, Kiriakou said he left Pakistan for Washington, where he said he continued to monitor the interrogation through classified cables and private communications with colleagues.
Kiriakou said he did not know that the interrogations were videotaped, although there often were closed-circuit video systems in the rooms where questioning took place. He said he also had no knowledge of the decision to destroy videotapes of the interrogations. Officials said there are hundreds of hours of recordings, but most are of Abu Zubaida alone in his cell recovering from his injuries.
Interrogation circumstances unclear
The circumstances surrounding Abu Zubaida's interrogation and treatment are still murky and fiercely disputed. FBI agents have opposed the use of coercive techniques as counterproductive and unreliable; intelligence officials have defended the tactics as valuable.
President Bush and others have portrayed Abu Zubaida as a crucial and highly placed terrorist, but some intelligence and law enforcement sources have said he did little more than help with logistics for al-Qaeda leaders and their associates.
In documents prepared for a military hearing at Guantanamo Bay, where he is still held, Abu Zubaida asserted that he was tortured by the CIA, and that he told his questioners whatever they wanted to hear to make the torture stop.
At the time the tapes were destroyed, several federal judges had issued court orders requiring the CIA and other government agencies to preserve records related to the interrogation and detention of alleged terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11 attacks. Some attorneys are seeking new orders for preserving the records.
Destruction in violation of judge’s order?
In one case, attorneys for Yemeni national Mohmoad Abdah alleged in a motion filed Sunday that the CIA may have violated an order issued in June 2005 by U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. in Washington. Kennedy told the government to "preserve and maintain all evidence and information regarding the torture, mistreatment, and abuse of detainees now at the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba."
Because Abu Zubaida had provided information that led to the capture of several Guantanamo Bay detainees, defense attorneys argue that any recordings of his interrogation should have been preserved.
"The revelation that the CIA destroyed these videotapes raises grave concerns about the government's compliance with the preservation order entered by this Court," wrote Abdah's lawyers, David H. Remes and Marc D. Falkoff.
Kiriakou, whose account first appeared in a story on ABC News's Web site, said he decided to go public to correct what he says are misperceptions about the role played by CIA employees in the early months of the government's anti-terrorism efforts.
"It's easy to point to intelligence failures and perceived intelligence failures, but the public has to understand how hard people are working to make them safe," he said.
Kiriakou said he first spoke to Abu Zubaida in a Pakistani military hospital. Abu Zubaida was recovering from wounds he suffered in the gun battle that led to his capture.
Talkative after coma
After he came out of a coma, Abu Zubaida was initially talkative, holding long conversations with Kiriakou from his hospital bed. The two discussed personal matters that ranged from religion to Abu Zubaida's private regret about having never married or fathered children.
Kiriakou said he repeatedly counseled Abu Zubaida to provide details about al-Qaeda's infrastructure, leadership and plans. Abu Zubaida refused and eventually became more defiant.
He was later flown to a secret CIA prison, where he was subjected to harsher methods, including waterboarding, Kiriakou said. Kiriakou said he made a final appeal to Abu Zubaida shortly before the waterboarding began.
"You have one more opportunity to cooperate. My guys are telling me that you're being a jerk," Kiriakou recalled telling Abu Zubaida. His reply, according to Kiriakou: "They're being jerks, too."
Kiriakou said he now has mixed feelings about the use of waterboarding. He said that he thinks the technique provided a crucial break to the CIA and probably helped prevent attacks, but that he is now convinced that waterboarding is torture, and "Americans are better than that."
"Maybe that's inconsistent, but that's how I feel," he said. "It was an ugly little episode that was perhaps necessary at that time. But we've moved beyond that."
Staff writers Walter Pincus and Michael Abramowitz and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.